A bowler, also known as a coke hat, derby, or billycock, is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown. It was first designed in 1849 by London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler to answer an order from Lock and Co. on behalf of a customer who was seeking a hat that would protect his gamekeepers’ heads from low-lying branches while riding on horseback.
Contrary to popular belief, bowlers were the most popular headgear in the American West, not the famed “cowboy hat” from movies, which led American journalist and historian Lucius Beebe dubbed the bowler “the hat that won the West.”
A bowler and cane were signature clothing props for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character (the two items sold for $150,000 in 1987) -- and the narrator explicitly notes the Chaplin connection later (see Bookmark, page 64).
Bowlers also turn up so often in the paintings of Belgian surrealist René Magritte that they could be termed a signature of that artist -- a connection to Sabina so apropos that it probably occurred to Kundera. (The cover design by Mary Schuck for the 1999 HarperPerennial Modern Classics edition of Unbearable Lightness depicts a bowler floating in the air before a Prague cityscape, which explicitly recalls various Magritte paintings.)
Pictured here in a 1915 poster is "Olga Petrova," the American stage name of British-born silent-film actress Muriel Harding), sporting a bowler.
This is the first mention of Sabina’s signature hat. It will turn up again when Tereza visits Sabina (second 21 of Part Two; page 64 in this edition), and its significance is discussed in greater detail when Franz encounters it, in section 2 of Part Three (pages 86-88). His inability to understand and appreciate the hat is symptomatic of the many misunderstandings and differences in their relationship (in contrast with Sabina's erotic friendship with Tomas), and serves as an introduction to the “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” that is sections 3, 5, and 7 of Part Three.